A look into the psychology of cheating

Scientists have long studied the psychology of cheating and searched to pinpoint circumstances and triggers that may lead people to cheat.

Moral Development

A number of theories have been suggested. Lawrence Kohlberg for instance, associated cheating with an individual’s morality level. The higher on the moral development ladder one is, the farther away she is from self-centered occupations. The higher on this ladder, the more adept at moral reasoning we become, thus we can more easily resist cheating impulses.

Rationalizing Cheating and Context Triggers

George Loewenstein suggests that when presented with an opportunity to cheat, every person calculates the benefits of such an act against its possible costs and then decides.

A 2010 study looking at how room lighting affects people’s behavior, found that when people are in a dimly lit room they are more likely to cheat  because of an false anonymity the lack of light provides them with. This illusory sense anonymity that darkness promotes is enough to make people more open to cheating.

Messy contexts are another cheating trigger, another study shows. It is being suggested that a disorderly environment implies a wider context of social deviation or even loose standards, making people think that their own deviation from the norm won’t be that serious.

If people believe others have engaged in illegitimate behavior and got away with it, they’re more likely to engage in the same behavior themselves.

Both studies show that we rely on situational triggers for deciding whether cheating is worthwhile or not. It also reveals our tendency to rationalize cheating in our effort to shake off the guilt.


When people believe they’re in a powerful position they’re more likely to cheat, as self-interest takes precedence over morality. Another interpretation of reality that promotes cheating is when we believe that the gains for cheating abound. On the contrary, scarcity of gains, financial and otherwise, tends to dampen our impulse to cheat.

The vicious circle of self-reinforcing behavior

Many people tend to rationalize their cheating behavior because they deep down believe in the immorality of it and feel guilty about it. The act of justifying our cheating allows us to accept our behavior, further encouraging us to engage in a similar behavior in the future.

By taking the guilt or shame factor out we allow ourselves to delve into more unethical behaviors. In a 2012 study, titled, Sweeping Dishonesty Under The Rug, the researchers found that cheating behavior makes the individual temporarily forget about moral codes and rules.

At the same time, other researchers point out the reminder effect. When we’re reminded of our ethical responsibilities, e.g. on top of an exam paper or on a door notice on the way to the exam room, this acts as a cheating deterrent.

Ultimately, whether we cheat because of forces beyond our comprehension, or because a situation lends itself to unethical behavior, cheating is a persistent phenomenon in social contexts where the individual is called upon to prove their worthiness and achievement. Understanding the mechanisms behind cheating can help us construct effective anti-cheating technologies to minimize cheating in schools and elsewhere.

ProctorFree allows schools to minimize the academic integrity issues that take place during online exams in many ways. One of our methods is to act as a subtle reminder and deterrent to the student if our system notices any behavior, actions or patterns that don’t fall within the parameters of a normal exam scenario.